House Members Become House Builders
Washington, D.C. - June, 1 1998 - Hundreds of U.S. lawmakers are adding a new twist to the concept of public service this summer as they frame houses instead of legislation.
Members of the House of Representatives, joined by local volunteers and community leaders, will build houses with low-income families in communities all across the country as part of "The Houses that Congress Built," a public-private project to spotlight the need for affordable housing.
More than 340 members of Congress and their staffs already have committed to work on a house build. The goal is to construct a "House that Congress Built" in each of the 435 congressional districts during 1998.
A majority of the sites will have some construction activity on June 6, the start of National Homeownership Week. Building will continue throughout the year.
The program, proposed by Rep. Jerry Lewis of Calif. and backed by a bipartisan group of House leaders and members, involves Habitat for Humanity International, congressional representatives and the National Partners in Homeownership, which includes Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, the National Association of Home Builders, the National Association of Realtors and more than 60 other national organizations, all dedicated to removing barriers to allow more Americans the opportunity to own their own homes.
The lawmakers enrolled in "The Houses that Congress Built" have some ambitious and unusual building plans. Among them:
• In Nashville, Tenn., Rep. Bob Clement will be a volunteer member of the Home Builders Association of Middle Tennessee construction team that will attempt to break the record for the fastest completion of a Habitat house - five hours and 57 minutes.
• Local support has been so strong for Speaker Newt Gingrich's "House that Congress Built" that enough money was raised to fund a second Habitat home. The initial house has been completed and will be dedicated this Saturday in Roswell, Georgia.
• Nevada Reps. John Ensign and James Gibbons plan to lead a large team of mayors on a Habitat house sponsored by Freddie Mac and built during the U.S. Conference of Mayors annual meeting in Reno.
• An Indianapolis radio station will broadcast live reports tracking the progress of Rep. Julia Carson's "House that Congress Built" 13-hour blitz build.
• Volunteer crew members on Rep. Dan Schaefer's house will participant in a 25-mile bike ride and fund-raiser prior to reporting for work at their construction site in Evergreen, Colo.
• In Michigan, Rep. Vern Ehlers and his staff will help future homeowners build four homes in Kent County, all on the same day.
• In the fall, when the region's extreme temperatures subside, California Reps. Brian Bilbray, Randy Cunningham and Duncan Hunter, all Republicans, will work side-by-side with their Democrat colleague, Bob Filner, in a bipartisan house-building effort with Tijuana/San Diego Habitat for Humanity.
• House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt will build in one day a disability accessible two-bedroom home in Jefferson County, Mo.
While these construction crews include noted politicians, the eventual homeowners are the key participants. Homeowner partners will work side by side with the lawmakers and other volunteers to construct each Habitat house. The house is then sold to the family at no profit and financed through a zero-interest mortgage.
Owning a home is not the answer to every problem, but it can be an important step -- often the first step -- toward helping people break out of the cycle of poverty.
The viability of American communities is at stake, according to Terry McDermott, executive vice president of the National Association. of Realtors.
"Families want a better place to live and they will pull together to make that happen," says McDermott. "This is why it is so critical to the future of our communities to work to ensure that everyone has a decent, affordable place to live."
Statistically, 66 percent of Americans now own their own homes. The goal of the National Partners in Homeownership is to raise that rate to 67.5 percent by the year 2000. That 1.5 percent hike would mean another 8 million homeowners.
"We know that homeownership is going up, but that's overall," points out Millard Fuller, founder and president of Habitat. "In inner cities and rural areas the percentage is much lower. We still have about 7 million families in substandard housing."
According to Rep. Lewis, "The Houses that Congress Built" is a public-private partnership that demonstrates how local communities can be strengthened when lawmakers get involved with neighborhoods, not as legislators, but as neighbors.
"What we're saying to Americans is that working together in a voluntary partnership of the public sector and non-profits can make a big difference in people's lives," says Lewis. "Freddie Mac, for example, committed $1 million to this project. Working together is still where it is in this country."